Public Health Pot Shots: How the CDC Succumbed to the Gun "Epidemic." (US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)(Cover Story)

Article excerpt

Last year Congress tried to take away $2.6 million from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In budgetary terms, it was a pittance: 0.1 percent of the CDC's $2.2 billion allocation. Symbolically, however, it was important: $2.6 million was the amount the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control had spent in 1995 on studies of firearm injuries. Congressional critics, who charged that the center's research program was driven by an anti-gun prejudice, had previously sought to eliminate the NCIPC completely. "This research is designed to, and is used to, promote a campaign to reduce lawful firearms ownership in America," wrote 10 senators, including then-Majority Leader Bob Dole and current Majority Leader Trent Lott. "Funding redundant research initiatives, particularly those which are driven by a social-policy agenda, simply does not make sense."

After the NCIPC survived the 1995 budget process, opponents narrowed their focus, seeking to pull the plug on the gun research specifically, or at least to punish the CDC for continuing to fund it. At a May 1996 hearing, Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ark.), co-sponsor of the amendment cutting the CDC's budget, chastised NCIPC Director Mark Rosenberg for treating guns as a "public health menace," suggesting that he was "working toward changing society's attitudes so that it becomes socially unacceptable to own handguns." In June the House Appropriations Committee adopted Dickey's amendment, which included a prohibition on the use of CDC funds "to advocate or promote gun control," and in July the full House rejected an attempt to restore the money.

Although the CDC ultimately got the $2.6 million back as part of a budget deal with the White House, the persistent assault on the agency's gun research created quite a stir. New England Journal of Medicine Editor Jerome Kassirer, who has published several of the CDC-funded gun studies, called it "an attack that strikes at the very heart of scientific research." Writing in The Washington Post, CDC Director David Satcher said criticism of the firearm research did not bode well for the country's future: "If we question the honesty of scientists who give every evidence of long deliberation on the issues before them, what are our expectations of anyone else? What hope is there for us as a society?" Frederick P. Rivara, a pediatrician who has received CDC money to do gun research, told The Chronicle of Higher Education that critics of the program were trying "to block scientific discovery because they don't like the results. This is a frightening trend for academic researchers. It's the equivalent of book burning."

That view was echoed by columnists and editorial writers throughout the country. In a New York Times column entitled "More N.R.A. Mischief," Bob Herbert defended the CDC's "rigorous, unbiased, scientific studies," suggesting that critics could not refute the results of the research and therefore had decided "to pull the plug on the funding and stop the effort altogether." Editorials offering the same interpretation appeared in The Washington Post ("NRA: Afraid of Facts"), USA Today ("Gun Lobby Keeps Rolling"), the Los Angeles Times ("NRA Aims at the Messenger"), The Atlanta Journal ("GOP Tries to Shoot the Messenger"), the Sacramento Bee ("Shooting the Messenger"), and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ("The Gun Epidemic").

Contrary to this picture of dispassionate scientists under assault by the Neanderthal NRA and its know-nothing allies in Congress, serious scholars have been criticizing the CDC's "public health" approach to gun research for years. In a presentation at the American Society of Criminology's 1994 meeting, for example, University of Illinois sociologist David Bordua and epidemiologist David Cowan called the public health literature on guns "advocacy based on political beliefs rather than scientific fact." Bordua and Cowan noted that The New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association, the main outlets for CDC-funded studies of firearms, are consistent supporters of strict gun control. …